The Courage to Be:
An open letter to Michael Sam (and every young Black gay man who dared to chase his dreams openly)
By: DaShawn Usher, Patrick Ingram, and Barry Sapp for The Young Black Gay Men’s Leadership Initiative (YBGLI). They are members of the YBGLI Organizing Committee. YBGLI is a national movement of young Black men addressing issues disproportionately affecting their peers.
The Courage to Start
If you’re a young Black gay man, you owe Michael Sam a round of applause. Not because Sam was one of the first publicly gay college football players or because he became the first publicly gay player to be drafted in the National Football League (NFL), but because Sam has enlightened the world as to what Black gay men could be: successful, a sports player, and most importantly themselves. He has broken multiple stereotypes and continues to live and thrive in his authentic life; something many of our gay brothers are uncomfortable doing. This month marks Sam’s one year anniversary of coming out to his University of Missouri teammates. The Young Black Gay Men’s Leadership Initiative (YBGLI) Organizing Committee salutes you, Michael Sam, for your continuous display of courage.
2012 – 2013 saw a wave of Black gay men coming out in sports. Wade Davis, Retired football player (2012), Jason Collins, NBA player (2013), Kwame Harris, Retired football player (2013), and Frederick “Fred” Douglas Rosser III aka Darren Young, the first WWE performer to come out publicly as gay while active as a wrestler with the company (2013). As the coming out stories of these athletes picked up more media attention, they also laid the foundation of redefining “gay” in sports. What was always speculated was now confirmed. Gay men existed in sports.
The road of Sam’s journey has not been shy of multiple bumps in the road. Adversity builds character. For Sam, he dealt with hard times on and off the field. In his personal life he dealt with the loss of three siblings (two deaths and one missing) and two other siblings ending up in prison. It could have been easy for Sam to steer off his destined course; however, his will and determination remained unmatched when it came to his passion for football. Often gay men are not comfortable coming out in their respective work places out of fear of being treated differently, judged, or harassed. Sam’s courage to confide in his college teammates lets us know that it is possible. The first step is owning it and being willing to let others know who you are.
As Glenn Burke, the first and only Major League Baseball (MLB) player to come out, stated over 40 years ago earlier in his career, “they can’t ever say now that a gay man can’t play in the majors, because I’m a gay man and I made it.” Sam would later go on to validate Burke’s statement as he came out publicly on February 9th 2014 as a gay college football player and would eventually be an NFL draft pick by the St. Louis Rams.
The Courage to Be Now
Growing up as Black men, we were constantly cultivated with protective factors. The same protective factors that our families provided to us to conform to a predominantly White society would later become our own barriers of limitations. “Your first strike is you’re Black, the second is your gay, and the third will be if you get AIDS.” A variation of these words is heard too often for our young Black gay brothers. These words are the ones that often haunt us for years until we really come to terms with our Blackness, sexual identity, and HIV status (both negative and positive). It is important to ensure that we guarantee that younger men who are coming to terms with their own identities have great examples.
So many of us look up to celebrities and athletes for inspiration, motivation, or empowerment. Seeing Sam and others publicly come out and disclose that they are gay is empowering. Having a roster of visible active professional athletes and public figures who are young, gay, and most importantly Black provides our peers with new protective factors. Seeing that we can be Black and gay while reaching levels of great success provides continuous motivation for us to reach new heights. Sam’s milestone of courage for our community proves that Black gay men are capable of being professionals in any occupation. Our commitment, adversaries, abilities, skills, and attributes are worth it.
Sam coming out in the midst of a great battle for LGBTQ rights is essential to inspire more Black gay men to be comfortable with who they are. This is something that we have to get used to because no longer are we relegated to the shadows to live our lives in secrecy. Years ago we would have never imagined a day where so many Black gay men felt so comfortable and more importantly willing to come out to the world. Although there is still much work to be done, our hat goes off to Sam and others who continue to push pass stigma and ignorance to be who they are without feeling the need to be secluded.
The Courage to Move Forward
Michael, the bravery you have shown is something that is a clear reflection of your character. It is something that has given us further clarity in the way we must go. There is no time for us to become complacent. It is no time for us to allow this celebratory joy to blind us from the work that needs to be done. Michael, you represent a change that was bound to happen and a change we gladly embrace. We stand on the shoulders of giants, who refused to extinguish their light, and it has never been more imperative than now that we continue this battle for equity. Your one single act of courage has strengthened the framework for other Black gay men entering into uncharted territories, whether on the field or in the boardroom. The goal isn’t about just stating who we are, but being who we are.
Michael, your audacity to not only live, but speak your truth, in a world that would rather silence your beauty is profound. The nerve to face ridicule and judgment from the masses in hopes of just being is something that many would lose, but you somehow managed to keep. Not only is your “coming out” transformative for the NFL, it is transformative for our community as well. You have given courage to little Black boys to be brave enough to live their truth, no matter what. You have given young Black men the strength to fight through adversity and understand that we truly are the change we seek. You have given our elders solace in knowing it will get better. For all of these things, we salute you.